The War Dividend

Will the Pentagon lock the Obama administration into ever-escalating military budgets?

Mark Engler

A U.S. Marine Humvee cruises through the desert near Al Asad, Iraq.

At the end of a long electoral season marked by bipartisan vows to bring change,” America’s massive military budget remains a hulking and seemingly immutable fact of national life. Given the financial crisis and the promise of President Bush’s departure from office, many have hoped that overheated defense spending might give way to the need to addressing domestic problems. 

Yet, countering these hopes, the Pentagon has already maneuvered to lock the Obama administration into greater military spending. On Oct. 9, Congressional Quarterly reported that a forthcoming spending estimate from defense officials would call for $450 billion in additional funds over the next five years. The publication Defense News subsequently confirmed with Bradley Berkson, the Pentagon’s director of program analysis and evaluation, that the military would indeed be seeking additional funds – although Berkson cited the figure of $360 billion over six years.

In either case, these billions would be increases on top of already escalating military budgets. The Pentagon is currently set to receive $515 billion for 2009, and $527 billion for 2010. Each sum is roughly five times what the federal government will spend annually on education, housing assistance and environmental protection combined.

Playing chicken’

The last decade brought a momentous surge in defense appropriations. Even without the additional money called for in the October estimate, proposed military spending for 2010 almost doubles the already astronomical budget from fiscal year 2000, which was approximately $280 billion. 

This, however, is not the whole story. Adding to the Pentagon base budget,” an extra $16 billion goes each year to the Department of Energy to maintain nuclear weapons. And Congress funds wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with supplemental authorizations, which came to $180 billion in fiscal year 2008.

The country spends as much on the military in a single year as it did in the recent $700 billion financial bailout. Yet the Pentagon is now calling for more.

Normally, the U.S. president submits a defense request to Congress early in the New Year as part of the regular budget process, and prior deliberations with military officials are not made available to the public. The purpose of leaking the new defense-spending estimate appears to be political. With Bush leaving office, and amid uncertainty about a new administration, the Pentagon presumably wants to set the bar high for military spending.

The thinking behind [the document] is pretty straightforward,” Dov Zakheim, a top budget official at the Pentagon during Bush’s first term, told Congressional Quarterly. They are setting a baseline for a new administration that then will have to defend cutting it.”

It’s sort of like trying to play chicken with the new administration,” says William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. Armed Services puts it out there: This is what we need to meet our mission. Let’s see if you have the guts to say otherwise.’ They won’t get all of it, but it will complicate matters. They may get more than they would have otherwise.”

The Pentagon in times of crisis

On the heels of Washington’s bailout for the financial sector, news reports have cited predictions from defense observers that military spending would plateau. 

Philip Finnegan, a defense industry analyst at the Teal Group, told the Washington Post that the economic downturn leaves the outlook for defense spending going from being strong to being dim.”

In late October, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) went so far as to suggest that a 25 percent cut in defense spending would be appropriate under current circumstances. The mere suggestion of such cuts led Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) to invoke images of a hostile foreign takeover. Talking with the Christian-oriented American Family News Network on Oct. 31, he decried the irresponsibility of such a move, , You know, if we don’t make the right decisions about the military, nothing else will matter, will it? Because if we don’t have a free country … what do these other programs matter at all?”

Less alarmist voices contend that, with a recession looming, the time to curtail military spending in order to fund other priorities is ripe. 

War production doesn’t create real economic health,” Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies recently wrote in a commentary. What do all those fancy missile systems, space weapons, battleships, even tanks and Humvees, produce other than a lot of dead Iraqis and dead Afghans?”

Instead, Bennis argued, government ought to bail out our battered economy [by providing] real jobs to soldiers drafted by lack of opportunities, and [by redirecting] the hundreds of billions of war-spending into green jobs, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, training new teachers and building new schools.”

In late September, during a question-and-answer session at the National Defense University, even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that economic conditions might cool enthusiasm for Pentagon spending: I certainly would expect growth [in defense budgets] to level off, and my guess would be [that] we’ll be fortunate in the years immediately ahead … if we were able to stay flat with inflation.”

Most scenarios presented by defense observers for a net decline in military spending do not see a reduced base budget” for the Pentagon, but rather predict decreases in supplemental war funding. 

Since 2001, Congress has appropriated $859 billion for Afghanistan, Iraq and other military operations related to the war on terrorism. 

Under an Obama administration, which promises a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, this funding stream is expected to dry up in coming years – a development that would lead to an overall decline in military allocations. 

Even Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) political platform called for reining in emergency” supplemental allotments because military needs, as the national security statement on his campaign website explains, must be funded by the regular appropriations process,” and relying on supplemental appropriation bills encourages pork barrel spending.”

Amid widespread belt-tightening, some military analysts say that a new administration should prune defense funding for outdated Cold War weapons systems. The F-22 combat fighter – designed to tangle with a once-anticipated new generation of high-tech Soviet planes and priced at $300 million per plane – could well be on the chopping block, as could a pricey new issue of attack submarines. Additionally, government could swiftly save $10 billion per year by cutting ongoing funding for Star-Wars-style anti-missile programs.

Ghosts of transitions past

While the possibility of minor adjustments is real, the chances of any significant assault on the military budget are remote.

Travis Sharp, an analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, puts it this way: One of the biggest lessons during the Clinton years when it came to White House-Pentagon relations was, Don’t do something at the beginning of your administration that’s going to damage your working relationship with the military and disrupt the trust that the military has for you as commander-in-chief.’ ” 

Sharp says President Clinton soured his relationship with the Pentagon and with senior military leaders because he got involved with the don’t ask, don’t tell” policy soon after coming into office.

No matter how good of a defense secretary President-elect Barack Obama chooses,” says Sharp, if he proposes a 25 percent defense-spending cut, the military will hate him. And he will put himself up to be absolutely crucified by Republicans when he runs for re-election in four years.”

Not surprisingly, former U.S. Navy secretary Richard Danzig, an Obama adviser who is expected to be a candidate for secretary of defense, told the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 3 that he doesn’t see defense spending declining in the first years of an Obama administration.” Even beyond the fear factor created by Clinton’s awkward first months in office, it is not clear from recent history that Democrats would be more frugal with defense spending than their Republican counterparts. 

Clinton and [Vice President Al] Gore, as part of the Democratic Leadership Council, tried to position themselves as tough Democrats who were not afraid to use force,” says Hartung of the New America Foundation. During the 2000 elections, Gore actually was claiming that he would spend more than Bush on the military.” 

An Obama Doctrine?

For his part, Obama has been consistently hawkish on Afghanistan and has called for a U.S. troop surge in that country.

Changing trends in military strategy may also lead to costly new spending. When Bush came into office in 2000, the hottest fad in defense planning was to deemphasize the use of ground troops, focusing instead on high technology and air power. This became known as the Rumsfeld Doctrine,” after its leading proponent, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Subsequently, U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan led to a backlash against this vision of reshaping the military. Officials such as Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, now head of the U.S. Central Command, have emphasized expanding the number of ground troops available for deployment.

Both Obama and McCain endorsed the more-boots-on-the-ground theory. Obama supports the military’s planned addition of 92,000 Army and Marine Corps personnel over the next five years, while McCain called for even more troops. According to defense officials, securing and equipping these forces will cost $117.6 billion through 2013

Pentagon official Berkson cites operations and maintenance support and capital support” for these troops as a primary rationale for requesting $60 billion a year above current budget levels.

On the one hand, abandoning the delusion that wars can be won on the cheap with high technology is a positive development. On the other hand, the ability of superpowers to succeed in counter-insurgency and reconstruction operations is itself highly suspect.

So, you’re preparing to fight a kind of war that you’ve proven yourself unable to win?” asks Sharp of the U.S. military brass. I’m not sure that makes sense.”

He adds: If we have more troops, does that mean that we’re going to be more willing to go into the next Iraq or Afghanistan? If it does, then I question the proposal.”

A true alternative

America needs not simply a shift to a more fashionable way of thinking about how wars are fought. Rather, Congress and the Obama administration need to consider preventative models of security and address the fact that out-of-control military spending leaves little money for pressing social needs.

In September, the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget for the United States – a group of progressive analysts and former military officials convened by the think tank Foreign Policy In Focus (for which I serve as a senior analyst) – released a proposal to realign the defense budget. The report recommends eliminating superfluous military spending and using the money saved – about $61 billion – to fund neglected aspects of national security. These include stopping nuclear proliferation, improving transit security and building a foreign policy grounded in diplomacy rather than force.

The big picture here is that the military-centered strategy of the declared global war on terror is the one that is not working,” wrote co-editors, Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies and Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, in their fiscal year 2008 report. And diplomacy, peacekeeping and international police work are the ones that are.”

In the longer term, Hartung counsels a broader shift in thinking. Instead of having 700-plus military bases, promising scores of countries that we’re going to be shoulder-to-shoulder with them if they ever have a conflict, and being the world’s largest arms merchant, I think there should be a scaling back of what defense means,” he says. The current approach is an aggressive posture, even if a lot of people in the United States don’t think of it in those terms.”

As U.S. economic difficulties worsen, the belief that the country can afford to maintain this posture may itself prove to be the most profound threat to our national security.

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Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached here.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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